Rethinking 'Calvin's Geneva': Women, Agency, and Religious Authority in Reformation Geneva

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From the establishment of the Reformation in 1536, Geneva's pastors knew that inculcating "right" belief and religious practice was essential to the success of religious reform. To accomplish this goal they created new institutions including the Consistory, a faith and morals court where the pastors and lay elders presided. William Monter asserts in his classic work, Calvin's Geneva, that "Geneva was pliable material which John Calvin gradually shaped into a disciplined and educated community . . . Calvin's community was not a forum for discussion, but a closed society." While the Consistory was diligent in seeking out misbehavior, creating confessional conformity among sixteenth-century Genevan women was not as easy as William Monter alleges, nor was discussion absent. The new religious regime faced challenges throughout Calvin's tenure, and women were among the vocal dissenters. However, women's religious ideas have been largely ignored, and this neglect has resulted in an overly optimistic assessment of the ease with which the Reformation was implemented. Histories of the Genevan Reformation like that of Monter and more recently William Naphy highlight the city's more famous and politically motivated religious controversies, which were resolved in Calvin's favor. More mundane religious dissent has been largely overlooked, but these cases constituted the lion's share of the Consistory's work and were the type of cases in which women were most often involved. When women diverged from orthodoxy, their religious beliefs and practices tended to be individual rather than part of collective dissent. Analysis of individual cases reveals the depth of women's participation in religious reform and, in some cases, tenacious dissent from the pastors' interpretation of it.